Top 5 parks in the American West [with map + photos]
Each American park has its own identity, its own history and its own unique geology, but they all have one thing in common: absolutely magnificent scenery.
They are so breathtaking that in my opinion, they deserve first place in the list of the most spectacular landscapes in the world.
A single USA self drive holiday will not be enough to visit them all, but you have to start somewhere: here are my TOP 5 parks in the American West.
#1. Grand Canyon National Park
Grand Canyon National Park is a place that every traveller needs to see at least once in a lifetime. It is certainly not one of the forgotten parks in the American West, but its popularity has a reason!
This most iconic emblem of the great American West is 445 kilometres long and up to 16 kilometres wide (between the North Rim and the South Rim) and covers an area of 4,531 km2.
There is about a 5-hour drive between the two 2 rims, so unless you have a lot of time ahead of you, you will have to make a choice.
North Rim is less accessible, wilder and less frequented. It is only open from mid-May until mid-October.
Four your first visit, I recommend focusing on South Rim, which is open year-round. It is more accessible and has a greater number of spectacular viewpoints.
Highlights of Grand Canyon National Park
- Rim Trail: this well-maintained 21 km trail follows the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. It runs parallel to Hermit Road, along which a shuttle transports visitors to the park's most stunning viewpoints such as Mather Point , Hopi Point , and Mohave Point , to name just a few.
- Bright Angel Trail: this hike takes you right down into the canyon. The level of difficulty and the distance depend on how far you want to go.
- South Kaibab Trail: it is about 5 km to Skeleton Point , but you can then continue and go back up via the Bright Angel Trail. You can stop at the first viewpoint if you are tired, short on time or are travelling with young children.
- Desert View Drive: this road to the east of Grand Canyon Village provides access to Grandview Point , which offers panoramic views of the canyon, and Desert View , which is on our list of the most beautiful sunsets in the American West.
- Helicopter tour: the experience of a lifetime! Take in breathtaking aerial views of this legendary natural wonder, from the south rim to the north rim.
The Grand Canyon offers a free shuttle service, making it easy to get around and to reach many trailheads and breathtaking viewpoints. Only Desert View Drive cannot be reached by shuttle. You will need to take your vehicle to get there.
Length of visit: plan to spend at least one day and one night to enjoy all the sights without rushing. Hiking enthusiasts could easily spend several days here.
#2. Arches National Park
Guess what is waiting for you in this park…
Arches is a spectacular American park that contains over 2,000 natural arches, the largest of which is 93 m wide.
These amazing sculptures, some majestic, some fragile, are the fascinating result of more than 100 million years of erosion.
Arches can be visited year round, but like most American parks, it is most busy in summer. For my part, I went in late October. The weather was perfect (we just needed a warmer layer in the morning), and on some trails we were utterly alone.
A 29 km scenic road crosses the park, providing easy access to points of interest up to Devils Garden, where you will find the park's only campground.
Highlights of Arches National Park
- Delicate Arch: the symbol of the park, and of the state of Utah, can be reached by a challenging 4.8 km round-trip trail. This spot is popular at the end of the day, when the soft evening light casts a reddish hue over the iconic arch. You can also see it from Lower Viewpoint , which is accessible by car, but, let's be honest, it's a lot less impressive.
- Devils Garden: this area alone contains more than 64 arches including the famous Landscape Arch , which is 30 m high with a span of 93 m.
- Windows Section: the heart of the park, with the highest concentration of arches such as Double Arch , North Window and Turret Arch , all of which can be reached by easy trails.
- Fiery Furnace: accompanied by a park ranger, you will follow an unmarked trail with tricky passages requiring physical stamina, agility and no fear of heights. A real labyrinth of canyons, cliffs and other rocky formations. A 3-hour excursion with a touch of adventure, just as we like it.
Unlike many parks, there is no shuttle service here. You will need your own vehicle to get around.
Length of visit: one full day to see the main attractions and do one or two short hikes. But if you have the chance to spend a night at the campground, don't hesitate to do it!
#3. Zion National Park
Zion is brightly-coloured massive sandstone cliffs, waterfalls, natural pools, scenic hikes and above all, a great diversity of wildlife and lush vegetation.
And in the middle of it all flows the Virgin River, which quietly continues to carve and shape the landscapes of Zion.
In short, it looks a lot like our vision of paradise. And that must be what the first Mormon pioneers felt when they came to settle here, naming it Zion meaning “residence closest to heaven”...
The park is divided into 3 sections: Zion Canyon in the south, Kolob Canyon in the north, and Kolob Terrace in the centre. I recommend focusing on Zion Canyon which is the most visited part of the park and offers the most services and attractions.
Highlights of Zion National Park
- Zion-Mount Carmel Highway: this 40-km road, considered one of the most scenic routes in the American West, runs between the park's eastern entrance and Springdale. It offers spectacular views of the canyon.
- Angels Landing: an extreme, one-of-a-kind hike. I can safely say this is one of the most memorable hikes I've done so far. Wow! The view from the end (and all along the way, for that matter) is well worth the challenge to get there. The last section is difficult and dizzying with chains bolted into the cliff for secure handholds. In peak season, it is best to start right at sunup as the traffic on the trail makes the experience much less enjoyable.
- The Narrows: this is the narrowest section of the canyon, where you can walk up the bed of the Virgin River. The water level varies with the season and how far you go. You may be in water up to your ankles, to your waist or even higher! Check the conditions with park rangers before tackling this hike.
In high season, from mid-March to October, the park's roads are closed to private vehicles.
A shuttle service is provided to drive visitors to the different points of interest and hiking trailheads.
Length of visit: at least one day. Hiking enthusiasts will want to stay for an extra day or half-day.
#4. Yosemite National Park
High in the Sierra Nevada mountains, Yosemite National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and was the first area of land to be protected by the U.S. government.
The park boasts great natural biodiversity and breathtaking scenery with its towering granite cliffs, powerful waterfalls, giant sequoias, and subalpine meadows that abound in wildlife.
This is a large park, and it is advisable to carefully plan your visit to avoid missing any of the top attractions. In fact, we have planned out the perfect schedule if you plan to spend 2 days in Yosemite.
Highlights of Yosemite National Park
- Tioga Road: a scenic high mountain road that crosses the northern section of Yosemite Park. From there, you can stop at Tuolumne Meadows , surrounded by majestic peaks and domes, and admire the view of Tenaya Canyon from Olmsted Point .
- Tunnel View: this view is often featured in famous photos of the park. You can see the massive granite monoliths El Capitan and Half Dome and the Bridalveil Falls .
- Glacier Point: an easily accessible lookout that offers breathtaking views of Yosemite Valley , Half Dome and Yosemite Falls .
The park is open all year round, but note that Tioga Road is closed from November until the and of May or early June, which will prevent you from crossing the park from east to west.
We highly recommend that you use the shuttle service: it's an efficient way to get around that avoids parking problems and will save you precious time.
Length of visit: ideally, 2 days and 2 nights if you want to visit the different viewpoints and do a few hikes.
#5. Bryce Canyon National Park
When we ask travellers to name their favorite American park, 90% say Bryce Canyon.
This unique and magnificent park is characterized by its "hoodoos" (or "fairy chimneys"), which could be described as brightly-coloured, irregularly-eroded rocky spires topped by a rock "cap".
It is hard to imagine how beautiful the landscape is, even if you see pictures before going. It is amazing to see what nature can do.
The long, thin park is traversed by a 29 km scenic road, but the most spectacular section is Bryce Amphitheater with its endless rows of colourful hoodoos.
Highlights of Bryce Canyon National Park
- Bryce Point: one of the most impressive views of the park. At an altitude of 2,529 metres, it offers an exceptional panoramic view of the amphitheatre.
- Inspiration Point: a lookout that allows a close view of the park's famous rock formations.
- Queen's Garden Trail: a must if you want to go down into the canyon for a close look at the majestic stone columns.
Bryce Canyon is at an elevation of over 2,500 metres, so it can get quite cold. There is often snow in the winter.
The park offers a free shuttle service. From May to October, I strongly recommend using the shuttle as it will allow you to visit the park freely without having to worry about finding parking at every point of interest.
Length of visit: In 24 hours you have time to visit the top viewpoints and go for a hike in the canyon.
Map of the 5 parks
I admit, we could easily have done a TOP 10, or more.
But let's just say that these 5 parks fit perfectly into the itinerary of an unforgettable Western USA road trip.
What would your TOP 5 list look like? Share your favourite parks with us in the comments section below.